If you had asked me one week ago whether I was nervous about strapping back into an Indy car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, for the first time since 2011 for my veteran refresher program at this year's Indy 500, I would have said no. If you had asked me again Monday morning before I strapped back in, I still would have said no – but the look in my eyes might have given me away. At 10:15 a.m., right before we took to the track, the 18 months since I last put my helmet on and climbed into an Indy car suddenly seemed an awfully long time.
Since I last wrote for RACER about what it means to me to be back at Indy, things have been a little flat-out. And occasionally they've gotten squirrelly too. Aside from the whole business point of view of putting together the budget to run a racing car, there is of course everything else that goes into running the racing car itself.
The crates were unloaded from the last IndyCar race in Brazil on Wednesday morning, and by Thursday afternoon I was in Chicago with the team for the first time meeting my engineer for the month of May, and the crew who would be working on my No. 63 Cyclops Gear machine. We started to pour my seat while she was still white, and she went into paint shop overnight.
Meanwhile, the cars of my two Dale Coyne Racing teammates, Justin Wilson and Ana Beatriz, were mid-process of being switched over from their Brazil setups to Indy trim. For a smaller team trying to get everything done in less than three days in the shop and add and build up almost from scratch a car for an interloper, it's a tall order.
On Friday afternoon I was back in Indy, running around making a final check on my race suit, and picking up my driver polos, and trying to make the Mari Hulman George Opening Weekend Party on time. Meantime back in Chicago, the decision was made to forego loading in for Opening Day, and instead to spend another day in the shop, spending more time on home turf and with setup equipment not available in the garage area. The guys were pulling 14-hour days trying to put the cars together, and having the opportunity to take a little more time over all three of them was the only thing to do.
Sunday morning, the team loaded into the garage area and we started the rest of the work on my seat – cutting it out, getting my pedal fit done, and finishing off the build to get her ready to run. Initially we targeted a shakedown during the Veteran Refresher/ROP time slot that was scheduled for Sunday afternoon, but as time ticked away we decided to focus on getting things right as opposed to simply getting them done.
IndyCar already had another ROP scheduled the following morning for Conor Daly, and we were given the opportunity to run then instead of pushing like crazy all afternoon just to make it out on track. By Sunday evening the car was through tech, the driver was fitted in, and we were ready to rumble when the track opened for Conor and I at 10:15 a.m.
Back to the start of this column. Back to the moments before the green flag flew, helmet going on, belts being tightened, mirrors being adjusted. I might not have wanted to admit even to myself that I was nervous about getting back on track, but I could no longer hide from the grains of doubt that gnawed away. Was it going to feel the same as I remembered, or strangely alien? How was I going to get along with my new ride? Was I still the same girl who qualified on pole here in the feeder category three years previously, and who qualified against the odds for the 2011 Indy 500 on Bump Day? Or would everything that had come to pass since I was last at Indy come into play? I felt the same tension as getting ready for a qualifying run, and this was just my veteran refresher...
The install lap we ran because it was a brand-new car was completed without any issues, and then we started to run. It took me about two laps to start to feel at home again back in a racing car at IMS. I was required to be running under 210mph but the more laps I ran, the more I struggled to stay under the speed restriction. The doubts dissipated, and it was like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. After being out of an Indy car for so long, the slow ticking down of laps until I was finally set free felt like an eternity. With shades of my Rookie Orientation in 2011, I'm pretty sure I was eventually given the all clear from my Veteran Refresher program with a few rolled eyes.
Back in the garage area, we checked thoroughly through the car. She was the spare in 2012, and ironically the car I would have jumped in then on Bump Day had the opportunity come to fruition. Now, one year later, we were finally shaking her down, and I was finally getting to make friends with an Indy car again at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Mid-afternoon, we got back out on pit lane and started to work on building me up to speed. 215 came, then 216. My feedback frustrated me at times, having been out of the car for such a long period of time, and not having been on an oval for so long, I didn't seem to have the vocabulary I was searching for to describe exactly what was going on. But as the afternoon progressed, I started to get better again at putting my thoughts into the words that would be needed to help my car. 217 came to us, then 218, and finally in our last run of the day, I broke into the 220mph average lap speed range.
Overall, it was a good first day. There is still a rather large amount of rust to be knocked off me. My line is definitely not quite back where I left her two years ago yet, and we decided not to run in the heavy traffic and fast track conditions of Happy Hour just yet to give me a little more solo time before we decide to go play.
I might have had to do a refresher program this morning, but were it not for competing at this race in 2011, I would still have the rookie “R” by my name. I have a huge amount to learn about the DW12, but I am very glad that I have finally got to start on that journey – even if we did have to embark on it together before she was even properly dressed for the occasion in her Cyclops Gear logos!
In Justin and Ana I have two great teammates to learn from, and as the week goes on, I hope to progress from “the interloper with the video recording sunglasses” to a fully fledged teammate for both of them.
There are plenty more laps to turn before the end of the week, and the learning curve remains steep. It seems amazing that my second Pole Day at the Speedway is only four days away. It's been a hectic, sometimes frantic couple of weeks, but right now is when the real work begins. Momentum can be a powerful thing in racing, but my first day back has finally quelled the inertia and started that process again.
It's great to be back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it's great to be back in an Indy car, and it's great to be working with a team intent on helping my teammates and I find the cars we want to be driving come qualifying weekend and race day. They say home is where your heart is. The Cyclops Gear car and I have found our home.